Jewish learning Israel’s Ancient Ouija Board

By Rabbi Neal Gold
Rabbi Neal Gold

Parashat Tetzaveh 5783 (Exodus 27:20-30:10)

One of the great religious questions in every generation is: How can we ever be sure of what God really desires of us? Many driven people—rabbis, politicians, activists—speak of being “called” by God for a task or a role—but always there is doubt: Is it really a divine calling? Or are these things manifestations of the ego?

This is an ancient dilemma as well—and yet the Torah offers one surprising shortcut to knowing God’s will.

Parashat Tetzaveh is largely devoted to the ritual clothing that was worn by Aaron the High Priest as he would officiate the worship that took place in the Mishkan (tabernacle). Among the special items Aaron wore is a choshen mishpat, “breastpiece of judgment,” which featured twelve mounted and colorful stones, each representing a tribe of Israel. The breastpiece was made of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet woolen threads, interwoven with fine linen. On it were engraved the names of each of the tribes of Israel, carried over Aaron’s heart. The fabric was folded over, forming a pouch on Aaron’s chest. In that pouch, Moses is instructed, “You shall place the Urim and the Tummim” (Ex. 28:30).
And here’s where the priestly clothes get strange. What were “the Urim and the Tummim”?

They are quite an enigma. The text seems to take for granted that the reader knows what these words mean. After all: all the other accoutrements of Aaron’s clothing are described in great detail, to be “made” (the verb asita, “you shall make,” is a refrain throughout the section). But of the Urim and Tummim, the text says “you shall place”—as if they already existed. Further, the definite article ha-, “the Urim and the Tummim”, seems to indicate that these objects were unique and known to the ancient audience.

Which is fine for the ancients—but leaves the rest of us even more confused!

From other contexts, we learn that the Urim and the Tummim were devices used to make direct inquiries of God. Numbers 27:21 tells us that after Moses’s death, his successor Joshua would inevitably find himself in confounding situations. When that would happen, Joshua was instructed to go to the high priest, “who shall on his behalf seek the decision of the Urim before YHVH.” That is to say: When confronted with a dilemma, Joshua—through the priest—had a direct hotline to God to Whom he could ask his questions. Very convenient!

So how did the Urim and Tummim work? Here, too, they are a mystery: the Torah does not offer an operator’s manual.

The medieval commentator Avraham Ibn Ezra, who was also an astronomer, suggests that the Urim and Tummim represent the sun and moon, and are set among the stones of the breastpiece representing heavenly constellations. Ultimately, they functioned as a sort of astrolabe, a medieval device used by astronomers and sailors to chart their course. Ibn Ezra goes on to say: “If I were to begin to explain the mystery… I could not do so even in a book as long as the one I have devoted to my entire commentary. For no one could understand it who has not learned astronomy.”

Ibn Ezra’s highly rational—and highly anachronistic—suggestion is at odds with Rashi’s mystical explanation. Rashi describes the Urim and Tummim as a piece of parchment with the Four-Letter Name of God on it, which was placed inside the breastpiece. When an inquiry was made, this inscription would “shed light” (me-ir, like “Urim”) and “fulfill” (m’tameim, like “Tummim”) the question at hand.

The most elaborate, and most bizarre, description is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 73b. Rabbi Yochanan describes the process: An inquiry would be made of the Urim and Tummim. Then, one by one, the letters that were on the breastpiece would protrude, spelling out the answer to the query.

You might call it an ancient Israelite Ouija board—with “letters from Beyond” magically spelling out the answers to a this-worldly dilemma. Many adults may blush when they recall late-night middle school sleepovers, squatting in a friend’s bedroom with a Ouija board and asking, “Does my crush like me?”—and then watching with astonishment as “the spirits” reveal an answer. So, too, I imagine that the later generations of the Tanakh, not to mention the Rabbis, were uncomfortable about the magic of the Urim and Tummim. After all, Balaam observed, “There is no augury in Jacob, no divining in Israel!” (Numbers 23:23). Maybe he didn’t know about the Urim.

Perhaps due to that embarrassment, the Urim and Tummim fade from view after an early stage of Israel’s development. After the time of King David, they seem to disappear. The late biblical books of Ezra (2:63) and Nehemiah (7:65) relate that when the Jews returned to the Land of Israel after the Babylonian exile, the devices were missing, and their priests, of questionable lineage, were instructed to wait “until a priest with Urim and Tummim should appear.” Which never happened—at least, not yet.

The Mishnah (Sotah 9:12) claims that “With the death of the first prophets, the Urim and Tummim ceased.” And the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus suggests that they hung around a few centuries longer, ending in the days of the Hasmonean High Priest John Hyrcanus (135-104 BCE).²

No matter when they ended, end they did—because they were an anachronism of an ancient time, a different sort of spirituality. In the words of the 20th century Torah commentator Umberto Cassuto:

Permission to ask the judgment of the Urim was, in the final analysis, only a concession or indulgence accorded by the Torah temporarily to satisfy, as far as possible, the innate yearnings of the people….

Subsequently, when the spiritual progress of the Israelites made it possible to desist from using this concession, the heads and leaders of the people abandoned the practice, and the Urim and Tummim remained only an honored and hallowed relic of antiquity, without any practical function.³

That is to say: Theologically and spiritually the Jewish people have evolved.

So that leaves us with the dilemma with which we began. When there are no convenient shortcuts like the Urim to rely upon, how do we identify God’s “calling”?

I’d suggest that each of us has a variety of imperfect tools at our disposal.

      • We have our Torah tradition, which maintains that the answer “is not in heaven” (Deut. 30:12), but rather in engagement with a hundred generations of Jews finding spiritual meaning in the Torah’s words.
      • We have prayer and meditation, disciplines for clarifying the mind and soul.
      • We have our own conscience and free will, God-given tools for seeking out the proper path for living.
      • And if we are lucky, we have a chaver/ah, a partner or friend who knows us intimately and can offer loving and honest guidance.

We don’t have the certainty provided by the Urim; that is why modesty and humility are such primary values in religious life. But perhaps the Urim were always a crutch anyway, of the sort that honest spiritual seekers need to forego in order to find our own way in the world.

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  1.  Ibn Ezra, commentary to Exodus 28:30.
  2.  Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 3, 8:9.
  3. U. Cassuto, Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1967, p.381.

Rabbi Neal Gold teaches and writes about Jewish texts, Israel, and the intersections between Jewish spiritual life and the contemporary world. He is the founder of A Tree with Roots, an online community for adult Jewish learning. He is adjunct faculty in Hebrew College’s Me’ah program, and serves as the campus rabbi at Babson College.

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